By Margie M. Palmer
Local entrepreneur is making an impact on a global scale
At the start of her career, Coronado resident Sarah Sternberg never imagined she’d wind up co-founding a company that would help her lift up and empower women, but a pink slip changed the trajectory of her life.
“It all started from the 2008 financial crisis,” Sternberg said, adding that when she realized her time at the real estate investment company she’d been working for was coming to an end, she found herself at a crossroads.
“I’d just received my master’s in business administration, but once the crisis hit, no one was hiring,” she said. “I had a friend who was doing volunteer work in Rwanda at the time, so I decided to take some time to volunteer with him.”
With a decision to be made, Sternberg traded in her routine 9-to-5 job for cold water bucket baths, sleeping under the stars and working in a rural African village. Nine years later, what was supposed to be a two-week volunteer trip has turned into a full-time passion.
During Sternberg’s time in Africa, she met skilled women artisans and quickly realized that the women worked best when they worked together and were able to support one another as individuals, as part of a tenacious community of strong women.
Their determination and skills inspired her to co-found Songa Designs International, a company that thrives as a fashion brand, which celebrates the significance of women all over the world.
The company currently supports between 175 and 200 artisans on the path to economic independence, empowering them with socio-economical support and entrepreneurial skills to reach economic independence and improve their living standards — all through the sale of a diverse range of hand-made accessories.
“The women I met were so talented; they had these incredible weaving skills and I could see the full range of their talent,” Sternberg said. “There were so many culturally traditional designs that I’d ever seen before and had no access to the global market. I realized that’s how I could help.”
This partnership has helped change these women’s lives in ways they never imagined, especially since they are empowered to negotiate their own salaries and earn fair wages for the very first time.
“A lot of them talk about having formal employment and steady income every month,” Sternberg said. “They talk about having food on the table, their kids in schools and now even having basic necessities.”
Over the years, some of these women have even been able to buy plots of land and have their own homes.
“One of my favorite stories to tell is how sometimes, I’ll walk into a co-op of working artisans whom I’ve known for years, but I won’t recognize them because they’ve redone their hair or have new clothes,” Sternberg said. “They’ve already paid for their kids and have a roof over their head, so they start to invest in themselves.
“We want these women to be confident on their own because the confidence they gain, no one can ever take that away from them,” she continued. “The women I work with today are more confident, worldly and educated, and they can feel like they can run their own business. It’s huge.”
Looking forward, Sternberg said she envisions Songa Designs International collaborating with other like-minded businesses to help provide further opportunities to artisan communities in Africa. Songa is currently working with Mrembo Africa, a company founded in 2013 by vulnerable women who were living in the slums of Nairobi. Mrembo Africa produces products that are sold on the local Maasai market in Kenya.
“I’d like to focus more on collaboration instead of competition,” she said. “Working with Mrembo and other talented artists in Kenya not only allows us to expand our design portfolio, but work with other women who are doing awesome things to help them create the life they want.”
—Margie Palmer is a San Diego-based freelance writer who has been racking up bylines in a myriad of news publications for the past 10 years. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.